Jacqueline Lyanga Watches 400 Movies to Prepare for AFI FEST

She is the festival director, after all

The 2015 AFI FEST presented by Audi kicks off November 5. Here festival director Jacqueline Lyanga lets us in on what to expect, what she’s excited for, and three movies you need to watch right now.

You’ve been directing the festival since 2010. What has changed in the past five years since you’ve been overseeing things?
One of the things that was really important to me in 2010 was to continue the precedent that was started in 2009 of giving the audience free tickets. We’ve continued that over the past five years and have built in all kinds of incentives for AFI members. It’s really been amazing to look at our audience grow and diversify— we’ve been able to offer Los Angeles a film festival where the price of a ticket or a pass isn’t a barrier to admission. It’s really extraordinary that anyone can go see a big gala film directed by Angelina Jolie-Pitt, starring Angelina Jolie-Pitt and Brad Pitt. Or they can go and explore a French film, or a film from some amazing new auteurs from Guatemala, all kinds of short films, or engage in our technology showcase.

Which is incredible. Have you found the attendance has increased since the free tickets were instituted?
Attendance has definitely grown. We see a lot of students coming to the festival now, especially film students from UCLA, USC, and Loyola Marymount. Los Angeles is sometimes a really challenging market for foreign and independent film distribution, and we’ve created an environment where audiences are open to discovering foreign and independent film and an environment in which conversations around those films can happen.

It’s great to see seven female directors competing in the New Auteurs section this year. Are you surprised by the number?
Actually no, we’ve had many female directors in competition over the years, and women have won our Grand Jury Prize in the New Auteurs competition in past years. New Auteurs is our section for discovering first- and second-time feature filmmakers from around the world, and like the rest of our program, it’s not curated to showcase world premieres; it looks at the year in cinema. We start curating films at Sundance, and we’re at Berlin and Rotterdam and Cannes and Venice and Telluride—Toronto is our last festival stop. So we’re looking to bring together what we think are the most interesting and exciting filmmakers from the past year, and we’ve found great films from female directors consistently every year. This year the number is certainly high, but it didn’t come as a surprise to us.

In terms of preparing for the festival, how many movies do you watch on average?
Probably about 300 to 400 films. Note taking is key. And Excel charts.

Hollywood is often on the chopping block when it comes to diversity in film. How does that affect your programming for AFI FEST?
We try to look at filmmaking across the globe. There are regions where filmmaking is a very strong industry, like France and Italy and Germany, but in our program this year you’ll find a number of Latin American filmmakers from Guatemala, Columbia, Argentina, Brazil. We try to crisscross the globe to bring the Los Angeles audience a view of what artists are doing around the world. The program as a result ends up being diverse because we’re trying to highlight new voices. And it’s quite exciting that, because of the ways technology enables so much more communication between artists online, you see this cross-pollination of ideas and you see collaborations happening—a lot of co-productions, a lot of foreign filmmakers making English-language films.

What are your highlights from this year’s festival?
I’m very excited about our opening night film, Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s By The Sea. It’s exciting to see a filmmaker, an actor, a woman who’s a humanitarian taking such creative chances. That’s something that you’ll see resonate across the program: incorporating this idea of American independent filmmaking into these influences of European cinema. I’m also very excited about our inspiration at this year’s festival, who is Dolores del Río. She’s a Mexican actress who came to Hollywood in 1925 and became a studio star; then she moved back to Mexico and became a big star there in the golden age of Mexican cinema in the ’40s and ’50s. She really embodies AFI FEST in a lot of ways, encompassing both the foreign and the national cinema. I’m also really excited to mention a tribute that we’re doing to Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, the two leads of the film 45 years. They’re icons of British cinema, so it’s extraordinary that we’ll have them here in Los Angeles to celebrate decades of their work.

What are three films you’d recommend right now?
I’ll start with Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, which I love. I think it has such a great female performance at the center of it. That’s a great film. My next one would be Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. You’ve got to have some spectacle. And I always have room on my nightstand for All About Eve. It’s a classic.

AFI Fest runs November 5 through November 12. Free tickets are available online